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Group says US energy panel stacked with industry supporters

FILE - In this March 28, 2017 file photo, a dump truck hauls coal at Contura Energy's Eagle Butte Mine near Gillette, Wyo. A conservation group wants a federal judge to disband a Trump administration energy advisory panel that is reviewing royalty payments made by companies that extract fuel from public lands. (AP Photo/Mead Gruver, File)

BILLINGS, Mont. — Conservationists on Tuesday claimed a Trump administration committee that's been reviewing royalties paid by companies that extract fossil fuels from public lands is stacked with industry supporters who conduct some meetings in secret.

The Western Organization of Resource Council asked a federal judge in Montana to disband the U.S. Interior Department's Royalty Policy Committee and strike down its recommendations.

The 20-person panel — comprised of representatives from industry, state government, tribes and academia — was established last year by U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

It's supposed to find ways to remove barriers to drilling and mining, while making sure taxpayers aren't shortchanged by energy companies. Zinke in April rejected the committee's recommendation to lower royalty rates for offshore drilling.

Critics allege the panel has made one-sided recommendations that favor industry and weaken environmental protections. Those include calls to speed up oil and gas lease sales in the Arctic, hasten approvals for new drilling and allow coal companies to largely self-determine the value of fuel they sell on the export market.

That could portend a potential sharp reversal from the Interior Department's actions under President Barack Obama, when the agency imposed a moratorium on coal leases from federal lands in part to investigate if companies exporting coal were skirting royalty rules.

"That committee is supposed to be representing all interests, but it's been pretty much totally stacked with industry and some Western states with a real strong development bias," said Steve Charter, a rancher from Roundup, Montana and board member of the Western Organization of Resource Councils.

"It's basically the fox guarding the hen house," Charter added.

The committee has held at least four public meetings since last September. Tuesday's lawsuit alleges subcommittees from the panel have met privately, with no public notice, to craft their recommendations.

Zinke spokeswoman Heather Swift declined to comment directly on the lawsuit or the allegations of secret subcommittee meetings. She said it was "inaccurate" to suggest the committee was dominated by industry.

"It's not even a majority industry. Further, for the first time ever the committee includes representatives from renewable energy," Swift said.

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Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter at www.twitter.com/matthewbrownap .

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